Issue #55: Under The Microscope 🔬
Spencer + Wild Indian
As Ladybird reminded us a few years ago, love and attention often go hand-in-hand. But sometimes loving observation can curdle into surveillance and then harm. This week we’re tackling two films that explore the ups and downs of contemplation and scrutiny, even as their narratives reward our curious investigation.
First, Cate on the haunted, royal ennui of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. Then, Zosha on Wild Indian, and the gorgeous starkness of its harsh and wounding story.
Heads up that this issue runs a little long, so don’t be afraid to hop over to our site to read both reviews in full. But in much more fun news, our archives have officially moved! The formatting might be a bit wonky on early posts, but every issue of this newsletter is now available right here on Substack.
Cate on Spencer
Kristen Stewart’s last Christmas movie wasn’t quite the home run she might have hoped for, but her newest — Spencer — a reimagining of the inner life of the Princess of Wales, is one for the ages. As with Jackie before it, director Pablo Larraín takes the story of one of the world’s most recognizable and picked apart women and delves deeply into the precise nature of her inner turmoil. Following Diana in her days at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate for Christmas in 1991, Larraín uses all the tools at his disposal to create the truest depiction of Diana’s life.
In as many words, Spencer is a horror film about a troubled woman experiencing severe suicidal ideation. The facts of this are true. It’s well documented that Diana struggled with depression, suicidality and an eating disorder that the film doesn’t shy away from either. But where Larraín invents is in the film’s tone. This is not an Oscar-baiting holiday release in the traditional sense. Instead, it feels pulled apart, gnarly and dug into — an unsettling film getting at the truth of an unsettling life.
Larraín, exquisitely supported by cinematographer Claire Mathon — of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame — creates an almost mythically surreal atmosphere on the foggy grounds of the estate. The camera pushes in uncomfortably close, and rarely pulls it back. The one exception is to position Diana alone in the frame, nearly swallowed up by all the empty space around her. But large swaths of the film are focused with laser-sharp precision on Stewart’s face and body. Her newly blonde hair is beatific in the grandeur of the ornate estate. But a hint of unease ever lingers.
And it’s the music that does the heavy lifting on that relentless sense of queasy anticipation. Scored with all the grandiose hallmarks of gothic horror, Jonny Greenwood’s haunting soundtrack ebbs and flows menacingly, signaling the way mundane moments of disagreement or tension feel much more fully embodied for Diana, who on some level, is quite literally fighting for her life. The music feels at once searingly intrusive and overfamiliar and yet achingly intimate — an open wound the film is daring us to behold. It soars and trembles with might then slips into an earned lament. The string-heavy odes sprinkle in moments of magical realism — harps clouded by the weight of sorrow. It’s in stark contrast to their usage and effects in a film like, for example, Zola.
While it’s obviously not a surprise that Spencer is a film about Diana, it is often much less about her than it is through her. Stewart is tasked with the vast majority of the film’s dialogue. As Diana, she spends her days not with the royal family but trying to make friends with the help. Of the members of the House of Windsor, the only royals to even speak are her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), her sons Will (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) and in a single scene, the Queen herself (Stella Gonet). Instead, Diana spends the few days at Sandringham trying to will herself into the stiff upper lip her in-laws have so obviously perfected.
The film’s central conflict is Diana’s desperate need for independence and normalcy. The royal family is one built on hierarchy, formality and tradition. There is no warmth or connection, not even in private. Not anywhere on the estate, given that they refuse to turn on the heating — a fact that Diana repeatedly laments. And it’s that coldness that is so difficult for her to bear. The only tenderness she finds is with her sons. She sneaks into their rooms to open presents early and the boys promise to tell her if she’s “being silly.”
By silly, they mean difficult. Because she is difficult. It’s her only leverage. Rebelling fruitlessly against a centuries-old dynasty, Diana arrives late for dinners, refuses to wear the assigned clothes for public functions and locks herself in bathrooms to purge. And the family fights back in every way it knows how. Frustrated at her lack of deference and sense of propriety, Charles orders her curtains sewn shut so that photographers cannot take her picture as she dresses. Her dresser and friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is sent away to separate her from her only ally. Despite her widely known (but unacknowledged) eating disorder, she’s forced to weigh herself upon arrival at the estate. The tradition is to gain at least six pounds to prove you’ve enjoyed yourself. As she increasingly refuses to cooperate with the staff, Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) who runs the household, is effectively tasked with babysitting her.
All the while, Diana is haunted by visions of Queen Anne Boyelyn, convinced that the royal family means to cut off her head too, and dispose of her. But Diana does have allies. The Head Chef and his staff are sympathetic to her, and to everything in their power to keep her happy — including preparing her favourite dessert in the hopes that she will keep it down. But as much as they might pity her, they also know their place. As much as Diana desires connection with them — with anyone — they know all too well that she is breaching the very rigid rules that they have no choice but to abide by. The result is that Diana is isolated in all corners.
And it’s not an exaggeration to say that Stewart gives a career-making performance as the doomed Princess. While she neither looks nor sounds like Diana, Stewart nails the sense of her: meek, affected and sharper than she gets any credit for. The result is a fully-realized portrait of an overexposed woman that never falls into imitation or parody. Instead, it is camp with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, feather-light touch — at once self-serious and knowingly self-aware. Stewart nails the buy-in from her very first scene. She is polite, reticent and full of endless yearning. Diana’s pain shines through every moment she is onscreen. She is so full of muchness that she cannot contain what is, in effect, grief.
Spencer is a singularly exquisite film. By stretching and interpolating genre and style, Larraín gets at the truth of Diana’s experiences much more clearly than any documentary ever could. It settles in to pose a very obvious question: What if Princess Diana’s life was a horror film? And its answer is simple: it was.
Zosha on Wild Indian
Wild Indian is a film of multitudes. This is a pat thing to say (few films aren’t!), but the duality of layers is always at play in writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s feature. As we follow Makwa and Ted-O, two young Native boys in Oklahoma, we see their lives as a prism, drawing in and refracting the world around them.
That includes the good and the bad. The film is kicked off in the 1980s, when Makwa — facing abuse and neglect at home — kills a boy from their class, and convinces Ted-O to help him cover it up. From there we jump forward to 2019, where we find the two men each struggling in their own way with their past.
It’s a movie that actually knows what to do with a character detail, no minute moment too small to inform the larger whole of the piece. After Makwa commits a crime he’s no longer timid, standing strong when he bumps shoulders in the hallway. Even the murder itself is matter of fact, over almost too fast, and not sensationalized or acknowledged in the ways we are accustomed to it. This is not the worst — we have seen enough suffering, and if you can avoid it, why not? — but it is in its own way stark and brutal.
Anchoring the film is the performances of the two adult leads, Michael Greyeyes as Makwa, and Chaske Spencer as Ted-O. They are a study in muddied duality, with few clear boundaries to separate them. Spencer brings a presence that is immediately aged in a way you can’t put your finger on. It’s there in the downward-cast eyes of a job interview, the shame of his face tattoos; it’s there as he holds his nephew up to look at family portraits. He is emotionally tortured in a way he is clearly wrestling with, and has almost exorcised.
With respect to Spencer (who is truly great as the heart of the film), it’s Greyeyes who stands out to me the most. His character is like few in the canon, navigating so many emotional and physical layers with such magnanimous, haunting ease. Makwa has grown up into Michael, eager to assimilate as “someone free of an identity only in so far that he can use that identity to serve getting what he wants,” according to Corbine. He is no mere killer, not deposited into the bucket of American Psycho or redemptive believer. As we watch Michael go through the world we see him as desperate, angry, vindictive, coy, happy, sad, earnest, and false. Whether it’s a swing of the golf club or a simple ask from the boss, Michael is both unaware and hyperconscious of his relationships to those around him. Greyeyes never falters, living a truth somewhere in between everything he says until finally he can spin no more.
The two men are captured by Corbine’s muted and minimalistic approach — to the boys, the men, and the landscapes they’re set against. The camera is always crisp, a sharp eye on the mounting lies and simmering tension. His stark frames leave room for unspoken truths to blossom in between the deceptive clarity they offer.
Ultimately, Wild Indian nestles in your mind because of these multitudes. Although Makwa is drawn to the meaning-seeking and suffering of the Christian school he came up in, there’s no easy resolutions or absolutions here. There’s no simple answer, no singular characterization. These men contain it all, and they are being forced to reconcile that in each other.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: It would behoove us all to please let Whitney Houston rest, looking back at the rich history of black social networks, a comprehensive look at accessibility in the digital age, womanhood in the absence of tropes, love is cringe, actors vs CGI, William Jackson Harper is your newest internet boyfriend, long live NeoPets and lowbrow is high praise.
ZOSHA: “Everything new will kill you” is boring. The unlikely arc of Timotheé Chalamet’s career. Is Netflix good for Orthodox Jewish people? The pitfalls of inventing an alien civilization. Oops we did it again (erased Britney Spears’ agency from her work ethic)!
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Zosha + Cate <3